Before the Dinner: Virunninu Munpu
Madhavi Kutty, 1961
That day too, they were getting ready for a dinner party. He felt that in their lives, the posturing before the mirror, and the careful checking of the face, were like the oft repeated chorus of a song. These occurred frequently and never changed their nature. The way she sat, the way she combed her hair, the way she would ask stupid questions without turning to look at him…
She pinned up her hair and went to the bathroom to wash her hands.
“Which sari should I wear ?” She asked, “Mohan, just decide finally and tell me…Blue or white?”
“White,” he muttered.
“But I have worn it for Mitra’s party last month. And we cannot rule out the same crowd from being there tonight… “, she said.
He straightened the knot of his tie and pulled on his white coat. Pursing his lips together, he walked away to the verandah.
“Oh, have you finished dressing so fast? I am just about to start…”, she called out.
Pulling a chair near the iron bars of the balcony , he seated himself. The gardener was trimming the henna shrubs of their neighbour’s garden patch using huge scissors.
“Mohan!” The young woman called from inside the house.
“What is it?”
“I have a feeling that those people would be there too for the party tonight.”
“Those people staying above us…”
“I heard the sound of the stitching machine in the morning! She must have been stitching her blouse for the party! What is the need for such miserliness? As if there are no good tailors in Calcutta!”
“Yet she goes out wearing such ugly blouses! I feel such pity for her husband…Mohan, are you listening?”
She appeared in the verandah momentarily , looked at him, and then vanished immediately. Her face was caked with rouge and face powder. He felt that it was the face of a cheap doll. He lighted a cigarette.
“She is so proud about the fact that she writes poetry! ‘ I am a poetess, why do I need beauty? ‘ That is her attitude! Now that infuriates me! Even if she is not fair, if she carefully works on her make up, she might escape being utterly plain…But..”
“Even if she does not carefully work on her makeup, I find her beautiful,” he replied.
She appeared outside yet again; this time with a smile.
“Oh, Mohan! Now you are trying to vex me, aren’t you dear? No one can ever think that she is beautiful! Beauty indeed! Haha…”
He stared for a few moments ,emotionless, at his wife’s face and thin frame wrapped in white silk. Then for some reason, he too started laughing.
“I am looking fine, right? There isn’t too much face powder on my face, is it?” She asked.
He made agreeable movements of his head.
“I get mad when I see her vanity,” She waxed on.
“Vanity? Where did she show off her vanity?” He queried.
“Imagine! You have never seen that? Lord, men are such fools! Haven’t you seen her walk? The way she holds her head high, never looking down at the ground for a moment? Then that lopsided smile! Her various conceited affectations…I feel so…”
“It is seven thirty now,” He said, getting up from his chair, “We have not yet attained the stature for reaching late at cocktail parties.”
She trilled with fake laughter. Then turning on her heels, she went inside their bedroom.
He heard the tremulous sound of a top whirling from the flat above theirs. It was followed by children’s laughter. He raised his eyes upwards. He wished that she was standing there- leaning against the iron bars of her verandah. What would happen? She might smile at him once. She might query whether his wife was hearty. Were these of any significance?
With a fury that had no obvious cause, he stamped at a flower pot with his shoe clad foot. All the flower pots on their verandah were full of thorny plants.
“I am ready!” His wife announced. She held a vanity bag of silvery satin in her hand.
“What happened to you ?” She asked,”You look so pale!”
He sat down heavily in the chair and looked down; his forehead was ensconced in his hands.
“What happened Mohan?” She asked again. He was extremely irritated by the thick fumes of her heavy perfume.
Without lifting his head he replied, “Please let me sit here for a while. I don’t feel like going anywhere today.”
“What do you mean?” Her voice became sharp, “Not going to the party after committing? You have forgotten all basic manners! You are absolutely fine! I know that. Get up now! Let us leave- it is quarter to eight now.”
The children staying in the flat above them, were still playing with the top: pulling at the thread. That sound rose like a sliver of excruciating pain and then thrummed within his heart.
“I am not going anywhere,” he announced.
“How childish you are, dearest!” She was sweet- talking him now. “It is your boss’s party! As if you have a choice! Can you afford to aggravate him?”
Yet, he continued to look down. He muttered, “I will not go.”
She caressed his hair, and then dropped kisses on his fingers.
“Get up darling!” She whispered softly , “We cannot have him vexed at us…”
He got up and then without glancing at her, crossed over the drawing room and reached the main door. She accompanied him with a smile.
“We have not yet attained the stature of reaching late…”, she teased. As they descended the stairs, she inspected his face. A smile? An angry, brooding silence ? She saw nothing. Consequently, she tried to change the topic of discussion.
“I wish it will not rain tonight! If it rains, even if I take extreme care, my sari will get dirty! The hems will get wet, by the time one gets inside the car! That is what scares me!”
When he started driving, a sudden rain fell all over the lane.
“I told you, did I not!” She trilled, “I knew it! My poor white sari! Oh my poor white sari!”
He thought that if she mentioned that sari one more time, he would most definitely strangle her. His hands started shaking.
“Mohan! What happened to you today? Are you feverish? Your hands are shaking dear!”
“Fever?!” He burst into laughter. Praying that the unwanted laughter would cease soon, she sat there quietly. The rain drops kept dashing against the glass panes.
He kept on laughing for a long time. She realised that he did not love her. ‘Has he ever loved her?’ She wondered to herself. There was no answer to that question.
During the dinner, the host accosted her: “I think that you have become more beautiful…!”
Her eyes overflowed for some reason at that moment.